Epilogue: “A Headless Legion”

By Ian Jones

First published December 2001

Back in 1987, Janet Street-Porter and Jane Hewland’s work on Network 7 had provided a quick fix for Channel 4′s flagging credentials following the messy demise of the station’s flagship show The Tube. It was telling, however, that when Network 7‘s first series finished at the end of September ’87 its place was filled with repeats of Worzel Gummidge, The Waltons and Treasure Hunt. The nature of The Tube‘s collapse from multiple crises of content, ratings and management dogged the development of much of what could be called Channel 4′s “youth” output in the last years of the 1980s and 1990s. And of course Janet wasn’t around to help out.

As DEF II began to take shape on BBC2, a sequence of new youth-orientated, entertainment based shows unfolded on C4, all of which seemed chiefly concerned with fusing the legacy of The Tube with the apparent successes of Network 7 to evolve some unique hybrid hit of the future. First came APB (aka All Points Between) in spring 1988, a lively if overambitious music show ably hosted by Gaz Top. Wired followed, the brainchild of ex-Tube mentor Malcolm Gerrie. Charlie Parsons oversaw the second series of Network 7 (May – October 1988) which suffered a little from too many new faces on screen and a declining novelty value. Halfway to Paradise (two series, 1988 – 1990) was made by Stuart Cosgrove’s independent company Big Star In A Wee Picture. Cosgrove now remembers it as, “a post-modern pop show from Glasgow, presented by a ’50s bingo caller who was out of touch with pop culture. It was really a cultural magazine and a show that had some great ideas buried in it. Maybe it was too confusing in an era of pop simplicity.” Indeed, its eclecticism wasn’t balanced by any comparable mainstream series in the schedules: The Chart Show had defected to ITV in January 1989.

Big World Café (two series, 1989) went for the world music angle and was produced by The Tube‘s other guardian, Andrea Wonfor. While its first series was hosted by Mariella Frostrup and Eagle-Eye Cherry (and began at the memorable time of 3.55pm on Sunday afternoons), when Andy Kershaw was recruited to co-host the second run the amount of world music featured somewhat perversely decreased. Charlie Parsons meanwhile had slipped into the role of C4′s youth guru. Stephen Garrett, then youth commissioning editor, explained Parsons’ latest venture Club X (April – September 1989) by stating: “Network 7 was a current affairs programme for young people; the new programme will specialise in the arts and pop culture.” Parsons himself hyped up how, “Unlike a lot of youth orientated TV we’ll be promoting unknown talent from a variety of fields, giving people a chance who ordinarily wouldn’t get a look in. C4 don’t expect big ratings but I’m convinced we have the ingredients to do well.”

Club X‘s hopelessly disorganised live presentation was offset to an extent by its patchwork of pre-recorded commissions (60 out of the 90 minutes running time) but its near-the-knuckle content (Sunday afternoon repeats were pulled after four weeks) and rather lofty idealism conspired to deny it a second series. In Stuart Cosgrove’s view it was simply “too pretentious by far and never decided whether it was about popular culture or the arts. By having a range of suppliers it also had a confused voice.” Within its wreckage, however, were the seeds for Parsons’ next venture, and the show which epitomised C4′s attitude to youth TV in the early 1990s. It’s difficult to feel much love for The Word (five series, 1990 – 95) nowadays, but for good or ill it undeniably refocused both programme makers’ and audiences’ perceptions away from The Tube and its ilk towards some gaudy future world of fluorescent stimulant post-pub fun. And at the time some of it was exciting telly. It was certainly preferable to dour music-based shows like Rock Steady (1990) or Friday Night at the Dome (1991).

Presenters came and went – though Terry Christian made the distance – as did editors (Parsons, Sebastian Scott, Paul Ross and Duncan Grey), yet that distinctive mix of music, mistakes and amateurism was in place from the start. When it began in August 1990 it actually went out at 6pm, but three months in it was shipped off to 11pm where it would always remain – though various spin-offs such as Access All Areas (autumn 1992) turned up, suitably sanitised, within the 6pm – 7pm slot. Terry himself was tireless in his support for “his” show, thundering: “I mean, everybody goes on about how great The Tube was. All I remember about it was hours and hours of people like fucking Phil Collins. Its average audience was 750,000 for a prime time Friday night slot. We get that for our fucking repeat. This is the best. Maybe there’ll be a better one one day, but it isn’t going to come from our competitors. I mean, is Janet Street-Porter going to better this? Come on!”

By this point Janet had DEF II firmly rooted on weekday evenings. Indeed, one of her biggest legacies would be establishing that 6pm – 7pm slot as a permanent place for youth-based entertainment and factual programming on both BBC2 and C4 long past DEF II’s lifetime. Janet’s policy of colonising early evenings with her branded output initially had little impact on C4. The station continued throwing out all kinds of old shows – The Munsters, Mister Ed and The Beverly Hillbillies, even documentaries such as Voices of War – in the 60 minutes prior to the Channel Four News. But as DEF II dug in, C4 began paying more attention to that crucial slot and the search for programmes to compete for teatime audiences proceeded apace.

A Vote of No Confidence (August 1988) was an example of an early attempt at matching DEF II’s current affairs policy in both attitude and scheduling: the three week series on young people’s relationship with politics was run on Mondays at 6.30pm. Star Test (four series, 1989 – 1992) also began on weeknights (Tuesdays at 6.30pm) though later moved to Sundays and worked thanks to its simplicity and faintly ridiculous idea of interactivity. In contrast The Survivors’ Guide (two series, 1989), again run on weeknights at 6.30pm, was cut from the same cloth as Reportage: a youth advice show, with phone lines manned after the programme, information packs available through the post and studio chat covering everything from AIDS to family arguments. With its concept of a “realistic network of information exchange” The Survivors’ Guide was an important if short-lived advance onto DEF II’s turf. Much of its success lay in the persona of its host, Mark Chase, who correctly avoided appearing both patronising and amateurish (though less effective were the roving reporters “This” and “That”).

Other shows such as the international “youth magazine” Buzz (1990), another Malcolm Gerrie project co-produced with MTV, and True or False (1990), a spin off from Network 7, had appeared within the same slots. Then in November 1990 Channel 4′s weekday early evenings underwent a radical revamp. Tonight With Jonathan Ross (1990 – 92) sat at 6.30pm on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays half the year round. Other on-running series, mostly imports such as The Cosby Show, A Different World and Happy Days, simply had to fit in around it. It made for interesting competition with DEF II but pulled consistently low audiences and offered little variation for the early evening viewer. Far better was to come, eventually, in the shape of the memorable student quiz Remote Control (three series, 1991 – 92) with host Anthony H. Wilson and “assistants” Frank Sidebottom, Phil Cornwell, Caroline Aherne and John Thomson becoming semi-regulars within the 6pm – 7pm slot. Not so impressive was the creaky showbiz gossip obsessed Sixthirtysomething (August – October 1991) which ran on both Wednesdays and Fridays and was presented by Maria McErlane and Ann Bryson.

Elsewhere during the week C4 was developing its youth programming further. Sunday evenings had become regular fixtures for shows such as The Wonder Years and repeats of Press Gang. The comedy drama Teenage Health Freak (two series, 1991 – 93) was run on weeknights at 8.30pm. Manhattan Cable (May – June 1991) hosted by Laurie Pike and Bill Judkins went out late on Wednesdays, and in its wry repackaging of “alien” popular culture as entertainment pioneered a formula that would turn up in different guises again and again throughout the decade. Laurie herself was also responsible for one of the seminal entertainment shows of the 1990s: Ring My Bell (October – December 1991). The Happening (September – October 1991), a music and variety showcase hosted by Jools Holland originally shown on BSB, was the first of many series that sought to maintain late Friday nights as a place for off-the-wall entertainment while The Word was on holiday.

Over at the BBC if Janet was at all concerned about competition for youth audiences she wasn’t using it as a reason for caution. Conversely once DEF II was up and running she quickly moved on to experiment elsewhere in the schedules, with Rapido on Saturdays, and the infamous revived version of Juke Box Jury on Sundays – “One of the classic programmes of all time,” Janet remembered, somewhat melodramatically. Another development came on Friday evenings, not officially part of DEF II, but from September 1991 onwards a definite “youth”/cult zone of its own thanks to the start of Thunderbirds. Originally of course Janet had made great play of running classic cult shows and clips within the fabric of DEF II. Now that trend took hold elsewhere, and slowly turned Friday evening into just as obvious a youth-orientated slot as the officially-branded ones on Monday and Wednesday, if not more entertaining, for in January 1992 Thunderbirds (and Doctor Who) were joined by the new show 100 Per Cent.

This fine series was supposed to be for kids too old for CBBC but too young for DEF II. There were no presenters, though Going Live!‘s Trevor and Simon were the main stars and opened each show with a routine from outside a caravan where they were supposed to live. Other features included John Hegley delivering poems on location; “Who Needs It?”, a Whose Line is it Anyway?-style comedy slot in a darkened studio with Alex Langdon and other “young comedians” in front of an audience; plus a listings section which one week included Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer promoting the release of Vic Reeves Big Night Out on video by being interviewed on a pig farm. Sadly a second series of this consistently fun show, scheduled for January 1993, was dropped as part of a BBC economy drive.

Bill Hilary had spent just 10 months working alongside Janet at DEF II. It had not been a happy time. “I was quickly disappointed,” he recalls, “because Network 7 had been such a superb series, and now the days of experimentation were clearly over. Network 7 hadn’t really labelled itself as youth, and that was its greatest strength. DEF II was to me completely the opposite: it couldn’t get away from ghettoising everything, and ended up just being terribly patronising, that dreadful “yo yo yo!” style, I mean, just look at the name of the thing. It was flawed from the outset.”

In spring 1992 he replaced Stephen Garrett as Channel 4 commissioning editor for youth programmes. He inherited The Word, which he would continue to defend, but not much else. Bill wanted to see “edgy, exciting programming,” but found waiting for him Gamesmaster (six series, 1992 – 97) – a Jane Hewland production, which admittedly did take youth-based TV into a new area – and the US import Blossom (1992 – 95). Jonathan Ross still commandeered three evenings a week (but only for a couple more months). In the pipeline were Made in the USA (April – May 1992), another Laurie Pike/Bill Judkins take on American popular culture, and A Stab in the Dark (June – August 1992), the David Baddiel fronted satirical review of the week, which did at least try for something different to The Word despite being edited Paul Ross.

Bill Hilary set out to reshape C4′s whole attitude to youth programming, influenced by what he saw as the failures of DEF II. “Our programmes were not perceived as targeting particular minorities,” he argues, “not put in any strands, and not so much obsessed with style over content, which was really what Janet was doing. C4 were much cleverer than that.” He commissioned Moviewatch (six series, 1993 – 98), a major new show that deliberately began on Sunday evenings as opposed to Friday nights, and later moved to weekday teatimes. Viva Cabaret was next (two series, 1993 – 94) a somewhat- mixed attempted to combine variety, new comedy and a “live” setting. The Next Big Thing was much more fun (summer 1993), another Sunday evening documentary following the exploits of FMB, the indie “band” from Stoke Newington, and Leona Naess, stepdaughter of Diana Ross.

Opening Shot (two series, 1993 – 94), an arts series for young people profiling everything from teenage tap dancers and rappers to Smash Hits that was first shown on LWT, ran on Saturday evenings. Hypnosis (1993), a new dance and rave show (devised by Lucy Robinson, later producer of The Sunday Show, notable for its continuous music mix rendering most of the interviews with DJs practically inaudible) and the new US import Hangin’ With Mr Cooper (1993 – 97) bolstered the schedules further. “Channel 4 was by definition a commercial set-up,” Bill reiterates, “so when I was there the attitude was much more: let’s not ghettoise programmes, let’s make it more general, we have to be broad to target the right audiences and satisfy advertisers – who were out to woo that key market, 16 – 24 year olds. As far as my own role was concerned, I didn’t set myself up to be the leader of young people, youth culture is too anarchic for that. It’s fatal to project yourself as some kind of Pied Piper, leading the youth behind you.”

There were also plans for a Reeves and Mortimer fronted entertainment show to run potentially all year round. C4 believed that repeating the series Big Night Out at the earlier time of 6.30pm had helped the pair become more of a “youth proposition”. A pilot – called Popadoodledandy – was recorded in early 1993 with guests including Nick Heyward, Kym Mazelle (who was asked to explain, with the aid of diagrams, how she would transport some meat) and Cud (whose performance was interrupted by Vic and Bob coming on the stage wearing My Little Pony rucksacks); but the deal fell through when Vic and Bob signed with the BBC instead.

However perhaps the 12 months from July 1993 were the most significant in establishing C4′s new portfolio of youth television. Within this period came Naked City (two series, 1993 – 94), Eurotrash (10 series by 1998) and Passengers (two series, 1994 – 95, though revived for E4 in 2001) – all Rapido TV productions; plus Walk on the Wild Side (spring 1994) and the pilot of The White Room in June ’94 (followed by three series 1995 – 96). While Naked City was a brave attempt to do something different that never gelled, Eurotrash had a charm to it to begin (though this soon disappeared). Passengers on the other hand was an interesting and involving take on global culture that worked mostly because it let the footage speak for itself. Walk on the Wild Side was another Stuart Cosgrove production and deliberately run on Wednesday nights to counter perceptions of Friday night being C4′s youth ghetto. Its creator recalls it as: “Brave, dangerous and innovative, profiling young people living on the wrong side of the tracks – muslim gangs, girl gangs, teen fire-raisers and so on. It was about youth as troublesome subculture not youth as consumer, which was at the time the dominant trend in TV and advertising.” It also remains one of Bill Hilary’s proudest commissions: “This was to do with emotional connections and trying to realise arguments through emotions and feelings, something totally new,” he recalls. The White Room however, with its aim to take live music on telly back to basics, was just boring.

The trashy, often lewd, sometimes voyeuristic elements that had always been a part of “youth TV” as a genre were wrought large by Rapido TV. The company were one of a select few (including Planet 24 – The Word, The Big Breakfast – and Hat Trick – Whose Line …, Drop the Dead Donkey etc.) who profited out of Channel 4 in the 1990s and received proportionately far more commissions than their fellow indies. If Charlie Parsons had defined a house style for C4 youth programming at the turn of the decade via Network 7, Club X and The Word, it was Rapido TV who fulfilled the role come mid-’90s. Ironically it was Rapido the programme being dropped by the BBC that spurned Antoine De Caunes and fellow company director Peter Stuart to turn elsewhere and land successive commissions from Channel 4.

At the same time as Bill Hilary was trying to make C4′s youth output as dissimilar to DEF II as possible, DEF II itself was going to pieces. When Alan Yentob had left BBC2 Janet was rumoured to be in the running as his replacement. This unlikely scenario was based on Janet deliberately courting the upmarket press with tales of fondness for classical music. Ultimately the job went to existing head of music and arts Michael Jackson, and Janet ended up head of independent production for BBC entertainment. Her replacement as head of youth programming and entertainment features was John Whiston (who among many things had overseen the legendary TV Hell night on BBC2 on August Bank Holiday Monday in 1992). Unlike Janet he was happy to work out of BBC Manchester; and also unlike Janet he was ready to face up to the fact DEF II had run its course. Consequently in August 1994 he announced he had officially abolished the whole brand.

As previously discussed, DEF II had been suffering for some time. Normski remembers today how his own show Dance Energy increasingly became a victim of “internal BBC politics and low budgeting. The only way forward was to change something to keep us going.” A lack of new ideas and an absence of fun and excitement had left the strand lurching from one week to the next. At the same time the Friday evening kind-of-DEF II youth slot had blossomed, encompassing Stingray, The Man From UNCLE, Sounds of the 60s, Captain Scarlet, and finally in October 1993 The Living Soap. This superb series was DEF II material by any other name, though why it was run on Fridays is a mystery. Its attempts to catalogue the lives of a bunch of Manchester students in pitiless detail seem hilarious from a post-Big Brother perspective, especially given how the participants quickly took great delight in bragging to whatever newspaper or magazine would listen how all their on-screen arguments were utterly contrived.

But the Beeb had been struggling. When ratings for the whole of 1993 were averaged it was found Channel 4 had overtaken BBC2 for the first time (11% to 10.2%). With the new year came another change in personnel at C4 as Bill Hilary left for Granada and his former deputy, David Stevenson, replaced him. At the time he believed he had inherited: “The best youth television department in the history of British television,” and his succession made for, perhaps inevitably, a fair degree of continuity. David also quickly commissioned BaadAsss TV, (piloted at Christmas 1994, then two series 1995 – 96). This was yet another Rapido TV production, focusing on black popular culture and hosted Andi Oliver and Ice-T – with whom David proudly posed for publicity photos in full Scottish regalia.

C4 were on a roll in the mid-’90s. New flagship shows such as Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush (two series, 1994 – 95) emerged alongside more quirky output like United States of Television (spring ’94), another overview of eccentric US culture hosted by Laura Kightlinger, and the wholly bizarre Surf Potatoes (Sunday lunchtimes, April – June 94), a TV “review show” fronted by Dani Behr and Max Beesley. Early evenings, however, were still a jumble of imports – Phenom (March – August 1994), the appalling Running the Halls (March – June 94), and Boy Meets World (1994 – 98) – and repeats; so in an attempt to rectify this, in July C4 announced they were intending to develop a new teen soap.

Michael Jackson at BBC2 had been considering a similar idea for some time, and had been in talks with, amongst others, Phil Redmond at Mersey TV. Much to John Whiston’s frustration, however, these plans came to nothing. Whiston wrote an internal memo at the time lashing his Controller for losing the youth TV impetus to C4, and how “altering BBC2′s remote and aged image would (have been) most effectively tackled by a long running soap … the denial of the existence of (a youth) core by the Controller will always leave us flying by the seat of our pants and ultimately at a disadvantage to the opposition.” Jackson in turn cited the Australian import Heartbreak High (which began September 1994) as fulfilling the same needs as any home-grown soap.

John Whiston had few big youth programmes to show for himself and his department for a perilously long time. A couple new series were leftover DEF II commissions: The Big Trip, profiling three groups of young travellers making their way round the world; and Mark Lamarr’s The Series from Hell on everyday nightmares such as getting a haircut. Fridays also continued showcasing cult series such as Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased); and The Rough Guide franchise returned, first as a one-off guide to Christmas shopping (December 1994), then in two more series of Rough Guide to the World (1995 – 96), both hosted by Magenta De Vine and Simon O’Brien.

But various delays had conspired to keep what was to be the Beeb’s great new youth show off the air until spring 1995. The Sunday Show (three series, 1995 – 96) was worked up by head of development Danielle Lux and none other than former Club X front man-turned TV producer Murray Boland. In shameless homage to Network 7 (Murray’s first big gig) the show went out live on Sunday lunchtimes, and it was hosted initially by Katie Puckrick and Donna McPhail. Perhaps a bit overoptimistic, it larked sparkle and rapport with viewers. It didn’t help that Danielle left for Granada within weeks of it going on air. Yet it was the only big show the youth department had, so it limped on with its macabre collection of features (Richard Arnold aka “Soapy Dick”, Dennis Pennis and later, of course, Paul Tonkinson) in tow.

Phil Redmond meanwhile had taken his ideas for a teen soap to Channel 4, and in March 1995 won a commission for 26 episodes to run weekly at 6.30pm. Lucinda Whiteley, C4 commissioning editor for children’s programmes, spoke of how she hoped the soap would “run for at least 10 years.” Redmond was frank: “Brookside is our social conscience. This is where we have some fun.” In turn Hollyoaks began on Monday 23 October; yet C4 were quickly dissatisfied with the show’s profile and wanted to attract a broader audience, so only ordered another 26 episodes instead of the expected 104. But as the soap evolved away from its frothy origins to become something far more entertaining and gritty, it was recommissioned to run twice-weekly (after a brief break in the summer) from September 1996. It became the bedrock of C4′s early evenings and increasingly the lynchpin of the schedules as a third and then a fourth weekly episode were added.

Other shows continued to appear under David Stevenson’s tutelage. Board Stupid (1995 – 98) was a new Sunday lunchtime series on snowboarding, initially hosted by DEF II exile Normski. New imports included All American Girl, Party of Five and My So-Called Life; while a whole new concept was tried out in Watch This Space, an interactive youth show from Jane Hewland. This first appeared in the form of a preview in April 1995 hosted by Dominik Diamond in order to allow viewers to vote on who the show’s proper presenters should be. Would-be hosts “auditioned”, the phone lines were opened, and at the end Dominik read out the results. Once the credits rolled, however, it was immediately realised that he’d read out the fake results the production team had written down for the rehearsal, which were amusingly on the other side of the bit of paper with the real results on. Special trailers were hastily filmed detailing who the actual presenters were, so Neil McLachlan, who’d been announced as coming last, had in fact come first and was joined – hosting the programme from a boat in London’s E14 – by Tamara Carrington, Dan Levy and Emma Lee.

After such an inauspicious start, this supposedly groundbreaking show turned out to be anything but. Everything was intended to be as “interactive” as possible, and in as obvious a way as possible: so viewers could select next week’s features, interact with guests via clumsy video phones, and taking part via fax and, above all, the internet. Each week an internet caf was selected to participate in the show, but equipment kept breaking down so eventually the show resorted to normal interviews. Watch This Space was a brave venture, but never recommissioned.

Other shows introduced during Stevenson’s shift included Takeover TV (1995 – 2001) and The Girlie Show (two series, 1996 – 97). Its first run, hosted by Sara Cox, US model Rachel Williams and Clare Gorham, spectacularly failed to live up to its promise of topping The Word in outrageousness stakes, despite the popular Wanker of the Week feature. Unsurprisingly it was another Rapido TV show. It appeared at the same time as TFI Friday (1996 – 2000), a programme that shamelessly plundered every lame device from youth TV over the last 20 years. With both shows causing major controversy within a matter of weeks, it felt as if C4 had kind of lost its way, or at least squandered the lead on the Beeb it had enjoyed a few years earlier (indeed, BBC2 had overtaken it again in the ratings).

Another shake-up began, triggered by the arrival of Stuart Cosgrove as controller of arts and entertainment who implemented a revamp of C4 commissioning structures to better compete with BBC2. Never convinced by DEF II – “It sometimes felt a bit contrived, like a hip uncle at a rave …” – Cosgrove perceived how C4′s output was usefully “demonstrating that a gulf in taste and attitude existed within British society.” Nonetheless David Stevenson’s department was now renamed entertainment and youth programmes, in theory extending its influence and output in the process, and various changes were made: BaadAsss TV and The White Room were axed, and The Girlie Show revamped (though its final series, with new presenter Sarah Cawood, was no better).

By now the influence of shows like Network 7, The Word and Eurotrash, and also DEF II, had filtered out all over the schedules. Aspects of youth TV manifested themselves through ideas of content, style, design and attitude, but in programming that could be both exciting and imaginative but also hugely self-indulgent and unappealing. On Channel 4 you had on the one hand the superb Adam & Joe Show (1996 – 2001), Ant and Dec Unzipped (spring 1997) and Light Lunch (1997 – 98); but also the lamentable Last Chance Lottery and Here’s Johnny (both spring 1997) which adapted the very worst elements of the in-your-face, Toothbrush-meets-The Word approach to entertainment for its own sake and offered up in the shape of Patrick Kielty and Johnny Vaughan two supremely irritating personalities-in-the-making. Meanwhile Tuesday 11 February 1997 was to prove a red letter day for the channel: the first time Friends was repeated within the 6pm – 7pm slot, a policy that would lead to the show becoming as prevalent as Hollyoaks in the teatime schedules. But the two series delivered regular, stable audiences, which increasingly was perhaps the only thing that mattered.

There was still longer to wait before early evenings on BBC2 were similarly steadied. Another change of Controller – Mark Thompson replacing Michael Jackson in July 1996 – had not helped continuity, and the rather haphazard collection of Star Trek spin offs and cult classics (The Champions, The New Avengers and, ironically, The Munsters, one of those shows C4 was airing at teatime 10 years earlier) continued to occupy teatime slots. The schedules still boasted occasional new shows, such as Gaytime TV (three series, 1995 – 97) made by Planet 24, Dear Dilemma (1995) featuring celebrities discussing fictional teenage crises based on real-life predicaments, and The A Force (two series, 1996 – 97), a distinctly DEF II-esque strand of entertainment on Friday nights linked by Felix Dexter.

Security of the kind Hollyoaks leant to C4′s early evening output didn’t appear until March 1997. The Simpsons had first begun on BBC1 on Saturday nights back in November ’96; but though it pulled almost equal ratings to its competition on ITV (Sabrina the Teenage Witch), it was thought not to provide a strong enough lead into the Beeb’s Saturday night line-up. Its switch to BBC2 four months later, running on both Mondays and Fridays at 6pm, at last restored some stability to the erstwhile stamping ground of DEF II and delivered regular, reliable viewers to the channel.

But importantly none of these – Hollyoaks, Friends, The Simpsons – were obvious “youth programmes”, in the sense of exhibiting similar aims, look or concerns as shows like Dance Energy, or Naked City, or even Network 7. Yet they were all incredibly popular with what was classed as the youth market (16 – 24 year olds). Speaking in spring 1997 the heads of the youth departments at both the Beeb and C4 seemed to acknowledge another sea change had occurred, implying that the future of youth television as a genre in itself was far from certain. David Stevenson readily declared that he was no longer interested in any programmes that bore even the smallest traces to the world of DEF II and the early 1990s. “Janet spawned a hellish legion,” he rued, “headless chicken stuff. What is hip at the moment is clearly insulting to a lot of young people.” John Whiston, meanwhile, saw a need to put the legacy of Street-Porter and her protégés well in the past. “The BBC doesn’t have a lot of this very gritty, very-close-to-what-people’s-lives-are-like-now shows,” he suggested, suggesting one way forward was to “put life back on the screens.”

Significantly, within a few months of making their observations, both were gone. David Stevenson quit C4 in June 1997 in the wake of Michael Jackson’s appointment as new chief executive; shortly afterwards youth programming was buried within a sprawling new entertainment group. John Whiston also moved on, to become director of programmes at Yorkshire-Tyne Tees Television. With hindsight their respective departures mark a useful turning point in the development of youth TV in the 1990s – and in a sense the end of an era that stretched back into the mid-1980s: for both the programmes, and the personnel behind them, had now completely changed.

At that time, while it was difficult to point to any specific youth programmes themselves, various characteristics of youth television could be detected in the presentation of both news and young people’s output on the newly-launched Channel 5; attitudes to primetime Saturday night entertainment shows on BBC1 and ITV; even current affairs coverage in Newsnight and Channel Four News. And while Janet Street-Porter, on leaving the BBC back in 1994, had failed in her attempt to run cable channel L!ve TV as a youth-aimed, aspirational, “cheery-not-sneery” station, another cable network, Rapture, was now successfully launched as a wholly youth-orientated venture and one that was overseen by, amongst others, Stephen Garrett. Meanwhile speaking at the Edinburgh TV Festival in 1997, Mark Thompson – interviewed, ironically, by Janet Street-Porter (“This is my bit, dunno what it’s called”) – made a point of commending Shooting Stars as a choice example of a new kind of youth TV: neither signposted or ghettoised, but still pulling an equal number of viewers (indeed often the same viewers) as the programme which preceded it in the schedules, Gardeners World.

Taking the measure of the very idea of “youth TV” today, it seems like it is both everywhere and nowhere. As a genre, Stuart Cosgrove argues, “It feels like it needs to find a new reason and purpose in multi-channel environment – there’s a lot of it around now, dedicated channels such as MTV, E4, Trouble and UK Play. The first era was about pioneering, now it’s about demographic business. Either way we need more innovation.” For Normski however, DEF II continues to resonate: “We opened the doors and built the foundations for the future of creative production and multicultural programming. As far as success goes most don’t really know how brilliant we were. Just take a look at all the stuff on digital and so called youth programming television now and you tell me, has anything moved any further forward, stood still or are we walking with the virtual dinosaurs?”

Looking back, so much of what could be classed as “youth television” seems to have been a reaction against something – whether existing conventions of programme-making, scheduling or commissioning – rather than much of a gesture in favour of anything. Most of it hasn’t aged at all well, which is also part of the point, the best youth shows possessing the ability to be both highly disposable, transient entertainment but endure through their influence on other successive programmes. Perhaps Bill Hilary best sums up the fate and the future of youth TV when he reflects, “The challenge was to keep going but it couldn’t really go anywhere new. While we started off presenting television that was on the edge and imaginative, ultimately the demographic kind of fell through, and any concept of it being a generational thing became counterproductive: you got the media using youth TV for their own ends, and it became a contrived genre. So youth TV as a genre kind of died, certainly before ’96/97, and perhaps we’d done all we could. But it had changed culture, and it assuredly had an amazing influence on all kinds of British television.”


<Part Two